SEC Football: Preview and Predictions for 2020 Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystAugust 19, 2020

SEC Football: Preview and Predictions for 2020 Season

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    Alabama WR/KR Jaylen Waddle
    Alabama WR/KR Jaylen WaddleButch Dill/Associated Press

    LSU is looking to win a second straight national championship; Alabama wants to exact revenge on the Tigers by keeping them from even playing for an SEC championship; Florida and Georgia might as well be co-favorites in the SEC East; and that's just the tip of the iceberg in the college football conference that has been the best in the business for quite some time.

    At least four SEC teams are vying for a national championship, possibly even six, depending on whom you ask, but only if there actually is a national championship...or a football season.

    The Big Ten and Pac-12 have already opted out of fall football, postponing until the spring in hopes that this country can contain COVID-19 by then. But the ACC, Big 12 and SEC are still planning on a semi-regular season beginning in late September.

    While we aren't certian it'll happen, we'll continue to assume there will be a fall college football season until there officially isn't one.

    And with that train of thought, let's dive into a full preview of SEC football, featuring noteworthy players, storylines, superlatives, new coaches and predicted standings.

Biggest Stars

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    LSU WR Ja'Marr Chase
    LSU WR Ja'Marr ChaseJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    Ja'Marr Chase, WR, LSU: Joe Burrow won the Heisman Trophy, but Chase had quite the set of hands in getting his quarterback that trophy. Chase led the nation in both receiving yards (1,780) and touchdowns (20) last year, but he had to return for one more season because he was only two years removed from high school. With Myles Brennan at quarterback and without Justin Jefferson running routes on the opposite side of the field, Chase's per-game numbers will likely decrease. Not by much, though, because this guy is a star.

    Najee Harris, RB, Alabama: The No. 2 overall recruit from the class of 2017 made the rather surprising decision to return for his senior year. Perhaps the playmaker felt he had unfinished business despite racking up more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns last season. Alabama fans certainly aren't complaining.

    Kylin Hill, RB, Mississippi State: Hill also could have declared for the draft after ranking third in the SEC in rushing yards in 2019 (1,350), but he'll be back at Mississippi State and trying to do the impossible: run the ball in Mike Leach's air raid offense. The most successful player in that regard was Taurean Henderson, who averaged 72.7 rushing yards per game for Texas Tech in 2005while also making 5.6 receptions per game, of course.

    Richard LeCounte, DB, Georgia: Georgia should be one of the nation's best teams, but the Bulldogs don't have can't-miss NFL prospects like Alabama, Clemson or LSU. They're just solid across the board. But LeCounte could emerge as their defensive superstar like Roquan Smith did a few years ago. After all, he was a 5-star recruit in 2017 and was single-handedly responsible for nearly half Georgia's takeaways last year, intercepting four passes and recovering three fumbles.

    Kellen Mond, QB, Texas A&M: One year after having two quarterbacks selected within the first five picks of the NFL draft, the SEC doesn't appear to have any QBs anywhere close to that conversation. Mond is the one most likely to change that if he can steer Texas A&M into the mix for an SEC title. He'll need to improve in the accuracy department for that to happen, though.

    DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama: It's hard to believe a guy could lead Alabama in receiving yards and touchdowns and still be overshadowed, but that's what happened to Smith last year. While everyone was paying attention to Tua Tagovailoa, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, Smith thrived in somewhat quiet fashion. He'll enter his senior season expected to rival Chase for the title of best receiver in the SEC.

    Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU: It's ridiculous to think this star still has to spend another two years playing college football, because he is already regarded by most as the best individual defender in the country. Stingley made six interceptions and broke up 15 other passes as a true freshman. Expect a sharp decline in stats, though, as quarterbacks begin to avoid him at all costs. Instead of Revis Island, it'll be Stingley Haven.

Top Storylines

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    South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp
    South Carolina head coach Will MuschampWade Payne/Associated Press

    Back to Back in the Bayou?

    When LSU won a national championship in 2007, it went 8-5 the following season and didn't even finish the year in the AP Top 25.

    Can Ed Orgeron do a better job of defending the title than Les Miles did?

    The roster will certainly look different after 14 players were chosen in the NFL draft, but there are still plenty of talented Tigers. In addition to the biggest names (Chase and Stingley), look for true freshman tight end Arik Gilbert and North Dakota State transfer linebacker Jabril Cox to help keep LSU among the nation's elite.

                    

    Georgia's New-Look Offense

    With Jake Fromm off to the NFL, Kirby Smart grabbed a pair of top-notch transfers in Jamie Newman (from Wake Forest) and JT Daniels (from USC). The former is a dual threat who at least temporarily made the Demon Deacons nationally relevant for the first time in more than a decade. The latter is a pro-style passer who immediately started as a true freshman in 2018 but who is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in Week 1 last season. Both guys are immediately eligible, and we still have no clue who will start.

    Moreover, Smart demoted offensive coordinator James Coley (who later left for a job on the Texas A&M staff) to bring in Todd Monkenwho turned around Southern Mississippi from 2013 to 2015 before spending the past four years as an offensive coordinator in the NFL.

    It'll be a new offensive scheme with a new quarterback (or two?), and who knows how that all will work during an offseason in which camps/practices were limited, to say the least.

                     

    'Bama Back?

    In the past 12 seasons, Alabama has suffered multiple regular-season losses just twice: a three-loss campaign in 2010 and last year's 11-2 letdown. It's weird to call it that, considering each of the Crimson Tide's 11 wins was by a margin of at least 19 points and the losses were 46-41 to the national champion and 48-45 on the road in the Iron Bowl. But for a team that played in each of the first five College Football Playoffs after winning three of the final five BCS championships, anything short of at least reaching a national semifinal does feel like a disappointment.

    Can Nick Saban lead Alabama back to the promised land? There's more than enough talent on the roster, thanks in large part to Harris, Alex Leatherwood, Dylan Moses, Smith and LaBryan Ray all putting off the NFL for one more year. Guess those stars didn't want to leave the Crimson Tide on a sour note. 

                     

    Life After Lynn Bowden Jr.?

    Bowden was Mr. Everything for Kentucky's offense. He led the Wildcats in rushing and was their top receiver, despite spending more than half of the season at quarterback. He also returned a handful of kickoffs and punts. Good luck arguing there was a better all-purpose player in the nation in 2019. Even with Terry Wilson presumably reacquiring the starting QB job, Kentucky is going to look a lot different on offense without Bowden.

    But the defensewhich has been the heart and soul of the Wildcats' turnaround over the past two yearsremains well intact, so Kentucky should remain competitive. It's tough to project a final record for this team, but it does seem like a safe assumption we'll see a few Kentucky games in which neither side eclipses 21 points.

                    

    Will Muschamp on the Hot Seat

    Muschamp has had some horrific injury luck during his four years in Columbia. Star linebacker Skai Moore missed Muschamp's entire first season (2016) with a neck injury. Standout wide receiver and kick returner Deebo Samuel missed most of the following season with a broken leg. And then last year, four-year starting quarterback Jake Bentley was lost for the year to a foot injury suffered in Week 1.

    All the same, a 26-25 record while archnemesis Clemson is kicking ass and taking names a little over 100 miles away can't be sitting well with Gamecocks fans and boosters. South Carolina doesn't need to be in the running for the SEC East title, but a fifth-place finish in the division might mean it's time for a coaching change.

The Favorites

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    Alabama DB Patrick Surtain II
    Alabama DB Patrick Surtain IIVasha Hunt/Associated Press

    Alabama Crimson Tide

    Almost across the board, Alabama should be the best team in the SEC. Best run game. Best passing attack. Best linemen, both offensive and defensive. With Dylan Moses and Joshua McMillon back after missing all of 2019 with ACL injuries, the Crimson Tide also probably have the best linebacker corps. If there's a weakness, it's in the secondary, but even there they have a likely first-round draft pick in the form of Patrick Surtain II.

    But what else is new? Saban puts together a top-five recruiting class year after year after year. It's usually ranked No. 1, or darn close to it. So there's always a copious amount of talent.

    But that wasn't enough to win the SEC West last year, though, and the Tide have to play at LSU this year in addition to an interdivision home game against Georgia. Winning the league won't be easy. It never is.

    But if you're betting the house on anyone in the SEC, it almost has to be the coach who has averaged 12.5 wins over the past 12 seasonsespecially when he has the most talented roster.

                  

    Georgia Bulldogs

    Georgia has won the SEC East in each of the last three seasons, and it should extend that streak to four. A lot of people have jumped aboard the Florida bandwagon this preseason, but the road to Atlanta still leads through Athens.

    As previously mentioned, the offense will look different, but that should be a good thing. Fromm was a game manager who wasn't even good at that toward the end, completing less than 50 percent of his passes in five consecutive games late in the year. And James Coley's playbook had a West Coast Offense feel to it in which quick-strike plays were few and far between.

    Monken will bring a different philosophy to the offense, and so will the quarterback. If they roll with Newman, the Bulldogs will finally have legitimate mobility at quarterback for the first time since D.J. Shockley's one year as the starter (2005). If Daniels wins the job instead, he has more of a cannon for an arm than Fromm did.

    Defense will be Georgia's calling card, though. The Bulldogs led the nation in allowing just 12.6 points per game last season, and they bring back eight of the starters from that group. In all 12 wins last year, Georgia allowed 17 points or fewer. Expect more of the same.

The Challengers

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    Texas A&M QB Kellen Mond
    Texas A&M QB Kellen MondGerald Herbert/Associated Press

    LSU Tigers

    The Tigers get Alabama at home this year, but they also have to play at Auburn, at Florida and at Texas A&M while replacing 14 starters. Even if they can knock off the Crimson Tide, several other potential losses loom on the calendar.

    Whether the Tigers truly threaten to repeat as national champions probably hinges on the play of Brennan. It feels like the quarterback has been LSU's "next man up" for at least half a decade, but it's finally going to be his ship to steer. No one is expecting him to be Burrow 2.0, and he doesn't need to be. LSU merely needs him to be something like a top-six QB in the conference to have a real shot.

                  

    Auburn Tigers

    There has been a ton of offseason banter about LSU's having to replace 14 starters, but so does Auburn. So even if quarterback Bo Nix takes a big step forward in year No. 2, will there be enough player development elsewhere for it to matter?

    Of particular concern is the running game. Auburn's offensive line was gutted, and then leading rusher JaTarvious Whitlow entered the transfer portal. Now, the Tigers likely need to rely on true freshman Tank Bigsby to shoulder the load behind a pretty inexperienced group of blockers. Maybe it works out, or maybe it devolves into a mess.

                    

    Texas A&M Aggies

    Compared to Auburn and LSU, Texas A&M's roster cohesion is quite an advantage. Those sets of Tigers each bring back eight starters, while the Aggies return 16, including the quarterback-running back-wide receiver-tight end quartet of Mond, Isaiah Spiller, Jhamon Ausbon and Jalen Wydermyer.

    Texas A&M needs to be much more consistent on defense, though, if it is to make a push in Jimbo Fisher's third season. The D was solid against Auburn and Georgia, but giving up 47 to Alabama and 50 to LSU was not OK, no matter how prolific those offenses were.

                     

    Florida Gators

    Florida is essentially an SEC East co-favorite with Georgia, and the Gators might oust the Bulldogs if their bevy of transfers can hit the ground running. Running back Lorenzo Lingard (Miami), wide receiver Justin Shorter (Penn State) and linebacker Brenton Cox (Georgia) are all former 5-star recruits looking to finally reach that potential with Florida.

    The big key for Florida will be replacing its biggest star at each of the three levels of the defense. Edge-rusher Jonathan Greenard, linebacker David Reese and cornerback CJ Henderson were the three biggest reasons the Gators were so stingy last year. Any step backward on defense could keep them from winning the division.

               

    Tennessee Volunteers

    If any other team is going to throw its hat into the SEC East ring with Georgia and Florida, Tennessee seems the likeliest candidate.

    The Volunteers finished last season on a six-game winning streak and carried that momentum over to the recruiting trail, putting together a top-10 2020 class and looking even stronger in 2021. If that success is to continue on the field this season, though, they need to replace some defensive leaders and actually figure out their quarterback situation, which has been a hot mess for the past three years. If true freshman Harrison Bailey wins the job, things could start brewing in a hurry in Knoxville.

Key Scheduled Games

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    Florida QB Kyle Trask
    Florida QB Kyle TraskLynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Georgia at Alabama (Oct. 17)

    They've recently squared off in a pair of SEC championships and one national championship, but this will be just the second regular-season meeting between Alabama and Georgia in more than a decade. It's just absurd that these conference foes meet so infrequently.

    Then again, because it only comes along every six years or so, this SEC championship preview feels a little extra special. And thankfully, these guys will be getting more of a warm-up than originally anticipated. This huge clash was slated for Sept. 19 as the SEC opener for both squads. It should be an even better game after three weeks of getting their feet wet.

             

    Alabama at LSU (Nov. 14)

    Auburn is Alabama's bigger rival, but this annual showdown figures to decide the SEC West.

    Alabama was riding an eight-game winning streak in the series before last year's clash in which Burrow led the Tigers to a 46-41 victory in Tuscaloosa. But perhaps the Crimson Tide will be more comfortable down in the bayou, where they pitched shutouts in both 2016 and 2018. And if they win at LSU, it's hard to envision a scenario in which they don't win the division.

                     

    Florida vs. Georgia in Jacksonville (Nov. 7)

    The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party won't feel the same without raucous tailgating, but the game itself is arguably the most important in painting the College Football Playoff picture. These are the two serious contenders to win the SEC East, which means the winner of this game will have a huge leg up on the loser in that race.

    In fact, the winner of this contest has won the SEC East in each of the last five seasons, as well as nine of the past 12. And the last time the loser of this game won the division was in 2005, when Florida won the game but could only muster a 5-3 record against a brutal league slate that included games at both Alabama and LSU.

    I do wish the schedule makers had pushed this one a little later on the docket, though. Neither Florida nor Georgia has to deal with a projected top-six team after this game, so the division is pretty much going to be decided by Week 7.

               

    Florida at Texas A&M (Oct. 10)

    For the most part, the SEC's contenders should be unaffected by the two new games added to each docket to go from an eight-game slate to 10. LSU acquired what should be easy victories over Missouri and Vanderbilt. Alabama also added Missouri and got a new home game against Kentucky. Georgia will now face both Arkansas and Mississippi State, neither of which should be an issue.

    But this one is huge, perhaps more so for Florida than for Texas A&M.

    The Gators previously had the easiest schedule in the SEC. Their only games against other projected top-six teams were a home game against LSU and the neutral-site battle with Georgia. This road game against the Aggies is a real game-changer, if only because it significantly increases the probability of Florida acquiring multiple losses and possibly not winning the SEC East even if it wins the head-to-head battle with Georgia.

New Coaches

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    Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin
    Ole Miss head coach Lane KiffinRogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss

    What a long, strange journey it has been for Kiffin over the past 15 years, but the former Alabama offensive coordinator is back in the SEC after a three-year, impressively successful stint at Florida Atlantic.

    Though Ole Miss hasn't had a winning season since 2015, Kiffin inherits a solid roster. Jerrion Ealy is a star at running back, Elijah Moore had an impressive sophomore season at wide receiver (850 yards) and the Rebels' QB tandem of John Rhys Plumlee (the runner) and Matt Corral (the passer) is quite an X-factor for a coach who has long been heralded as an offensive wizard.

    Mediocre defense will likely be what holds Ole Miss back from competing for a spot in the SEC West's top four, but a 5-5 record is at least possible.

                

    Mike Leach, Mississippi State

    After nearly two decades spent between the Big 12 and the Pac-12, the Pirate is heading to the SEC. Whether Leach's air raid offense will work in a league that actually plays defense is one of the most intriguing subplots of this season.

    No one expects the Bulldogs to contend for an SEC championship. Certainly not in year No. 1. But if LSU won a national championship last year by largely just letting Burrow throw, throw and throw some more, why couldn't Mississippi State at least win a few games and perhaps pull off one colossal upset?

    If Leach could take some kid (Gardner Minshew II) who wasn't anything special at East Carolina, let him grow a mustache and throw for nearly 5,000 yards in a single season, surely he can make some noise (clanga clanga) with a guy like K.J. Costello, who threw for more than 6,000 yards over three years at Stanford.

                      

    Eli Drinkwitz, Missouri

    Drinkwitz is much more of an unknown than Kiffin or Leach, but his resume speaks for itself.

    He was on the coaching staff when Auburn won the 2010 national championship. In his two seasons as an assistant at Arkansas State, the Red Wolves won 18 games. He spent two years with Boise State and was involved in 21 more wins. In his three years as the offensive coordinator at NC State, the Wolfpack had a strong offense and a winning record each season. And then when he finally got a head coaching job last year, he merely led Appalachian State to a 12-1 record.

    It's time to drastically increase the difficulty level, though.

    At Missouri, Drinkwitz will be tasked with replacing a starting quarterback, three starting offensive linemen and the top three receivers from a team that was dreadful on offense to begin with. The defense should be rock solid, though, and third place in the SEC East is very much up for grabs. The Tigers will likely struggle, but they might flirt with a .500 record if TCU transfer Shawn Robinson lives up to his former recruiting potential (top 200 overall in 2017).

                  

    Sam Pittman, Arkansas

    While Kiffin, Leach and Drinkwitz inherit situations where it wouldn't quite take a miracle to be respectable right away, Pittman isn't afforded that luxury at Arkansas. The Razorbacks have been a dumpster fire on the field, going 8-28 overall and 1-23 in the SEC over the past three seasons.

    The offense might be OK. Florida graduate transfer Feleipe Franks is better than anyone else who has lined up behind center for the Razorbacks in the last three years, and getting Rakeem Boyd (1,133 yards) back at running back was a pleasant surprise. They also bring back a lot of experience along the offensive line, which is Pittman's position of specialty.

    The defense is a complete and utter mess, though, allowing at least 34.8 points per game in three consecutive seasons. (40.6 PPG overall in the 24 SEC games.) The last time Arkansas held an SEC opponent below 24 points was 28 conference games ago, and the last time it happened multiple times in a season was in 2015. A lot of work to be done on that end.

Best Offense: Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Alabama RB Najee Harris
    Alabama RB Najee HarrisJohn Raoux/Associated Press

    We'll keep this one short and sweet: Alabama will have the SEC's best offense, and it's not much of a competition.

    Harris might be the first running back selected in the 2021 NFL draft. Smith could easily be the first wide receiver off the board. Jaylen Waddle shouldn't be far behind him. And while Oregon's Penei Sewell has "first offensive tackle drafted" on lockdown, Alex Leatherwood is a strong candidate for No. 2 on that list.

    Mac Jones did enough last season that there's no good reason to worry if he'll be an effective quarterback. And on the off chance that he does struggle, Saban signed the best quarterback in the 2020 class in Bryce Young. Not a bad back-up plan.

    The only real question mark for the Crimson Tide is depth at wide receiver. Smith and Waddle are excellent, but no other wide receiver on the roster has so much as five career receptions.

    They have options, though. Xavier Williams was a top-150 overall recruit in 2018. John Metchie was a 4-star guy in last year's class. And Saban inked three more 4-star recruits this year in Javon Baker, Traeshon Holden and Thaiu Jones-Bell. Whether it's one of those guys who emerges or more of a collective effort, there should be plenty of receiving yards beyond the top two stars.

    Alabama didn't have the best offense last year, but only because LSU was out of control. The Tigers are bound to come back to earth, at least a little bit, leaving the Crimson Tide as the clear No. 1.

Best Defense: Georgia Bulldogs

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    Georgia LB Monty Rice and head coach Kirby Smart
    Georgia LB Monty Rice and head coach Kirby SmartJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    As with Alabama's offense, there's not much of a debate about which SEC team should have the best defense.

    Georgia's D was already elite last year. The Bulldogs led the nation in points allowed per game (12.6) and led the SEC in yards allowed per game (275.7).

    They were particularly dominant against the run, allowing an absurd 74.6 yards per game and just two touchdowns all year. The only program in the nation in the past decade to have a better season in either category was Alabama, which allowed 72.2 yards per game in 2011 and 63.9 in 2016.

    And Georgia is getting back most of the leaders of that front seven. Linebacker Tae Crowder and defensive lineman Tyler Clark are the only noteworthy departures, but neither one was irreplaceable. In fact, Clark went undrafted and Crowder was this year's Mr. Irrelevant, going No. 255. At least leading tackler Monty Rice is back, and get ready for Nolan Smith to take a huge step forward as a sophomore.

    The secondary might be even better than the front seven this year too. Georgia did lose J.R. Reed, but the quartet of Richard LeCounte, DJ Daniel, Eric Stokes and Mark Webb gives the Bulldogs a great veteran presence. They also still have Tyson Campbell (No. 12 overall recruit in 2018); both Tyrique Stevenson and Lewis Cine were top-50 overall recruits last year; and they signed Kelee Ringo (No. 4 overall recruit in 2020).

    The talented depth across the board is almost unfair.

Projected Standings

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    Georgia head coach Kirby Smart
    Georgia head coach Kirby SmartBrett Duke/Associated Press

    SEC East

    1. Georgia Bulldogs (9-1)

    2. Florida Gators (8-2)

    T-3. Tennessee Volunteers (5-5)

    T-3. Kentucky Wildcats (5-5)

    5. South Carolina Gamecocks (3-7)

    6. Missouri Tigers (2-8)

    7. Vanderbilt Commodores (0-10)

              

    SEC West

    1. Alabama Crimson Tide (10-0)

    2. LSU Tigers (8-2)

    3. Texas A&M Aggies (7-3)

    4. Auburn Tigers (6-4)

    T-5. Ole Miss Rebels (3-7)

    T-5. Mississippi State Bulldogs (3-7)

    7. Arkansas Razorbacks (1-9)

Projected SEC Championship: Alabama vs. Georgia

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    Alabama head coach Nick Saban
    Alabama head coach Nick SabanVasha Hunt/Associated Press

    Who doesn't love a classic unstoppable force versus immovable object debate?

    Substantially fewer teams than expected are still planning on playing this fall, but if you had ranked all 130 FBS offenses and all 130 defenses for the 2020 season, there was a good case for Alabama at No. 1 in the former and Georgia at No. 1 in the latter.

    We know they'll play once during the regular season, but a second matchup in the SEC championship would be fantastic. (And, oh my, what if the winner of the regular-season matchup loses the conference championship, they both make the College Football Playoff and we're treated to a third clash in the span of about three months? Be still, my heart.)

    Got to lean in the direction of Alabama for this projected showdown, as elite college football offenses tend to reign supreme over top-notch defenses. Plus, Alabama has won five straight in this series, and it's not as if the Tide are expected to struggle on defense, either.

    It's going to be an amazing game, though—provided the season A) gets played and B) plays to form.

    Prediction: Alabama 31, Georgia 27

          

    Recruiting info via 247Sports.